CHICAGO -- The Chicago Fire Department is looking into what it says is an increase in firefighter suicides and attempts in the last year in hopes of putting together outreach programs to prevent more, officials said Friday.
The department's union president said there have been a half-dozen suicides and an undisclosed number of attempted suicides in the last year, an "above average number," prompting department officials to organize open counseling sessions and a family day to address the outbreak.
"Unfortunately, it's one of those things we just don't have an answer for," said Tom Ryan, president of the firefighters' union. "You don't know why. The victim is gone and you don't know what the thought process is."
Ryan said he does not see any obvious cause, but noted that firefighter and paramedic jobs are stressful and the people who work them tend to be stoic, bottling up their feelings.
"In the course of our job we see a lot of difficult things," he said. "Could it be a contributing factor? We don't know. Everybody leaves and goes home and you don't know what happens behind closed doors."
Larry Langford, spokesman for the department, acknowledged that there have been more suicides and attempts in the last year, and that the department is looking into why it happened.
"We're giving it more study than before," he said.
As part of its efforts, the department sponsored a Family Focus Day on Jan. 31. Rather than dwell solely on suicide, planners designed an all-day event focused on what can be at the root of serious stress, such as financial problems, substance abuse, education and other family issues, said Liz Crowe, coordinator for human relations for the department. Local financial and mental health agencies volunteered their time, she said.
"We didn't feel that if we had a lecture on suicide that we'd get a lot of people interested," Crowe said. More than 600 of the 5,000 firefighters and paramedics attended the event with their families, she said.
The department plans to have more such events.
The department also has sent personnel staff and counselors to suicide prevention and awareness seminars so that they are as attuned as possible to the issue, said Ryan.
The union is reminding members about employee-assistance programs.
"We don't want the trend to continue," Ryan said. "Firemen and paramedics -- men and women both -- tend to internalize things.
"That's because you have to be stoic in the face of some really bad things sometimes."